Despite decades of slow progress, women lawyers, lawyers with disabilities and lawyers from racial, ethnic and sexual minorities are persistently underrepresented in the legal field, as shown by annual surveys by organizations like the American Bar Association and National Association for Law Placement.
Increasingly, however, law schools, law firms and nonprofits are actively addressing the challenges of minority applicants. Some law schools and organizations have created special fellowships and programs to meet the needs of such applicants.
Last year, for example, the Legal Education Access Pipeline, also known as LEAP, began providing fellows in Southern California with free resources such as weekly application workshops, mentorship by law students and lawyers, LSAT test prep classes and access to diverse legal professionals. In August, the program will begin accepting applications for its second cohort from law school applicants who are first-generation, have experienced socioeconomic disadvantage, are students of color or who identify as LGBTQ.
LEAP founder Cindy Lopez explains that diversity in law school enhances both legal education and the legal system. Studies have shown that more diverse groups of people are better able to generate ideas and solve problems than homogenous groups. Engaging with students and professors with different life experiences equips all law students with a broader range of perspectives and interpersonal skills required to thrive in diverse work settings.
Lopez’s own experience as a deputy attorney general in California for three decades showed her the importance of diversity within the legal system. “Legal clients, criminal or corporate, want to look across the room and see that people understand them,” Lopez says. “If they look across the room and everyone looks the same, it’s not going to be a just society.”
Thus, applicants from underrepresented backgrounds not only belong in law school, but will ultimately strengthen the legal field. Nevertheless, they may feel uniquely alienated and overwhelmed. No one finds law school easy, but it can be more difficult for those with fewer relevant role models.
Lopez offers four key points of law school advice for aspiring lawyers from underrepresented backgrounds:
— Access resources.
— Find your people.
— Get out of the classroom.
— Don’t be discouraged.
Applicants without friends, relatives or peers who have gone through the law school application process may not understand how challenging it can be, from preparing for the LSAT to creating a realistic target list of schools. They may not know they have the option of writing diversity statements, that some law schools may waive application fees or even when to apply.
Lopez advises applicants to start working on their applications over the summer and have drafts of application essays by September. “Law school admission officers and others recommend applying no later than Thanksgiving for the best chance of receiving admission with financial aid,” she says.
Find Your People
Lopez advises incoming law students to “find your people.” Many law students join extracurricular affinity groups based on religion, ethnicity, politics, geography or other common identities. Some schools also have programs for first-generation law students whose parents did not graduate college and struggle to provide the advice and support other students take for granted.
Nevertheless, Lopez cautions, “Your people are not necessarily the people who look like you.” She stresses the value of extracurricular activities based on career interests, like a specific legal field or kind of practice.
Lopez also suggests that law students seek out like-minded professors to serve as mentors, and volunteer to help with campus events to meet more people and show commitment. Career services offices might also provide valuable connections to opportunities or alumni.
Get Out of the Classroom
“Yes, class is important, but nonacademic experiences are as important — if not more important — for your career,” Lopez advises. “You shouldn’t leave law school without some sort of practical experience like a clinic, internship or job.”
Lopez’s career at the California attorney general’s office began with an internship there as a law student. Although challenging, the experience rewarded her in several ways.
First, it gave her a career aspiration, a firsthand view of legal work she found interesting and fulfilling. Second, it helped her build relationships with role models and mentors. Third, it gave her a chance to shine — and a leg up when she later applied to work in the office.
However, Lopez also emphasizes that minority lawyers shouldn’t feel limited to public service work. “I had a great career at the attorney general’s office,” she says. “But there are plenty of lawyers from all different backgrounds in law firms and private practice.”
Whatever kind of work they choose, aspiring lawyers should be mindful of work-life balance, Lopez cautions. Lawyers from disadvantaged backgrounds may feel they have to work harder than anyone else, but they should be conscious about the expectations they set for themselves and the lifestyle they are creating in the long run.
Don’t Be Discouraged
Some studies have shown that the 2008 recession disproportionately affected the careers of lawyers of color and women lawyers. Lopez worries that the coronavirus pandemic may do the same for recent law graduates.
Still, she believes this is no reason for aspiring lawyers to doubt themselves. “Don’t let this pandemic discourage your dreams,” she says.
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Advice for Aspiring Lawyers About Diversity in Law School originally appeared on usnews.com